I know I just complained about the emotional manipulation of Dan Fogelman’s film Life Itself, about how the creator of This Is Us has crafted a film in which every man is a hero, every woman is a tragic figure, and unreliable narrators blah blah snooooozzze I’m sorry. I can’t keep talking about that movie. I can’t. I’m tapped out.
But I had a point here, which is: Is it weird that I found Life Itself so exhausting, and yet I look favorably upon the new film from British novelist Ian McEwan, who is also just as emotionally manipulative than Fogelman? I despised McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, in which Saoirse Ronan’s character’s molestation at the hands of her father was like a puzzle piece to unlock her sexual frigidity with her new husband, and I know that Atonement is reviled in some circles. But The Children Act, which McEwan adapted from his own novel, feels different from either of those films. The narrative is again intimate, there is a tight focus on only two or three characters, and although there is an intense emotional arc, the conclusion actually feels appropriate. Weepy, yes, but appropriate.
The Children Act centers on Judge Fiona Maye (Emma Thompson, who has been promoting this film on a very amusing press tour over the past few weeks), who presides over family law cases in the High Court of Justice of England and Wales. Every day is another potentially tragic case—a parent has kidnapped their child to a foreign country; a husband is refusing to divorce his wife or pay child support—and when the film opens, Maye is weighing a judgment on whether the parents of conjoined twins can keep a hospital from separating their sons. If the doctors got their way, one son would live, one son would die. What is the legal answer? And is the legal answer the moral one?
Maye’s cases (in which she’s tasked with following the Children Act, to first and foremost ensure the safety of under-18 minors) are the kind that generate intense public interest, protesters in the streets, and extensive news coverage, but she seems closed off from everything around her. Her legal clerk Nigel (Jason Watkins) is devoted and discreet, but she is barely polite and certainly distant, and she treats her husband, Professor Jack Maye (Stanley Tucci, looking very Dad Hot), the same way. They live in the same amazing apartment (all white, with built-in bookshelves, and a chaise, and a piano!), but they’re so cordial to each other after decades of marriage that Jack tells Fiona he’s considering having an affair. Why lie to her? Because telling the truth, directly and without exaggeration, feels in line with her nature.
Rattled by this revelation, Fiona’s normally calm demeanor is further upended with her latest case: A 17-year-old boy, a Jehovah’s Witness, is refusing blood transfusion treatment for his leukemia, and his parents are refusing it too, so the hospital has brought the case before the court. Adam Henry (Fionn Whitehead of Dunkirk, making a greater impression here than he did in Christopher Nolan’s film) thinks, as his parents do, that having the blood of another in his body is a rejection of God and his gift, and so Fiona must issue a judgment: Should she force the hospital to treat the boy to save his cancer, but go against his religion? Or do nothing, and let Adam die, which he and his parents would prefer?
There is a lot of movie that continues after that first climax of The Children Act, and I was honestly surprised and intrigued by where McEwan took the story, and the questions he had his characters ask. What are the responsibilities of an individual who saves another’s life, or of someone who takes another’s life? Can you repent? Can you assuage your guilt? Does offering someone another chance at life mean you have to be involved in that life? Does a change of faith mean that you fundamentally change who you are? How much of your religion is you, and how many of your choices are because of that faith?
It’s not that McEwan’s script asks these questions baldly or without nuance; the conversations that he creates between Fiona and Adam, Fiona and Adam’s parents, Adam and his parents, and Fiona and Jack are how the film alludes to these concepts and questions. Yes, these are weighty queries about the nature of life and death—the film does feature a child sick with cancer, after all—but unlike the similar subplot in Life Itself, in which a dying mother urges her son to continue living his life despite her illness, The Children Act actually goes into the particulars of what life after tragedy would entail. Not everyone finds the love of their life on the New York City street corner where their actions as a child caused the death of that loved one’s parents. Life itself … it’s crazy!
Thompson is a pillar of resolve whose moments of emotion are affecting because they’re so unexpected, and the relationship between her and Whitehead is excellently developed, from his curiosity about “What do they call you? Your Highness? Your Excellency?” to a shared fondness for the poem “Down By the Salley Gardens” by Irish writer William Butler Yeats, to when Adam wonders of his own parents, “If you loved your son, your only son, why would you let him die?” Fiona’s and Adam’s paths are intertwined in a unique case of cause and effect, and while The Children Act is dramatic in that typical McEwan way, its tragic elements feel thoughtfully considered instead of disingenuously devised.
The Children Act is in limited release around the U.S. and is available on demand.
Image sources (in order of posting): A24, A24, A24